Rachel Roddy recipes: Deep flavours of anchovy with a hint of onion and garlic infuse this definitively Sicilian pasta dish, the sweet flavours insistent and rich with the promise of spring
As a little girl I prayed for tonsilitis. Once I got it, I would have a week off school so they could whip out my tonsils, then, like a boy in my class, I too would be prescribed ice-cream and jelly for breakfast. Despite getting on my knees and repeating hail Marys, I got neither tonsillitis, nor the soothing rewards. Unless your tonsils are being removed, ice-cream is not an appropriate way to start the day, I might well have been told. But try telling this to a Sicilian my partner for example who, from spring to late autumn, thinks gelato and granita a perfectly ordinary and sensible way to begin the day.
The first time I saw my childhood fantasy alive and kicking was in Catania, a lively city on the east coast in the shadow of Mount Etna. In the fish market, which plays out like a piece of bloody theatre in the sunken Piazza Duomo, men were standing around a market bar eating sweet, yeasted brioche split and filled, generously, with ice-cream. In the smallest of the bars opposite the duomo itself, people of all sorts were starting their day with glass cups of almond, coffee or lemon granita, spoonfuls alternated with bites of warm brioche.
I joined in, wondering if I could see the tip of Mount Etna with its cap of snow. The Greeks and Romans used snow from Etna to cool their wine. The Arabs, on the other hand, used it to freeze their sweet drinks or sharbat. Sicilians still claim Arab origins for their sorbetti, gelati and granita.
This was 12 years ago my first trip to Sicily (from which I never returned to England). I was travelling around the island more or less on the coast, where towns are like punctuation marks. In the eastern town of Noto I visited a caff, which I now know to be Caff Sicilia, where I ate almond granita, ivory in colour and such a creamy, gliding delight that I ordered another.
Years later, in Rome, I would read about Caff Sicilia and Corrado Assenza, the gentle king of Sicilian patisserie and ices. Later still, with my Sicilian partner, we would drive from our house further along the coast, my son shouting Are we there yet?, to eat Corrados triumphant cakes and granita di gelsi (mulberry), which is such an intense shade of garnet red it leaves a mark on your tongue almost as startling as its taste. Almost everything Corrado and his son make uses local ingredients: lemons, citrons, mandarins, mulberries, figs, jasmine, almonds, and local ricotta.
Meeting Corrado two weeks ago was a little like meeting my Willy Wonka. I was attending Fabrizia Lanzas course, Cook The Farm, which, over 10 weeks, looks closely at Sicilian ingredients. Corrado was our guest teacher that week, arriving on the Tuesday night in a white van full of good things to teach us about honey and citrus. To start, he infused milk and cream with bitter orange and mandarin, which he then strained and thickened to serve with almond cake.
For our main course, he made a risotto with fish stock, marinating the fish mullet and prawns in honey. Local artichokes were cooked in their own juices with no salt and no lid, a way of maintaining flavour and colour which will please those of you who found the discoloration from last week off-putting. The artichokes were dressed with olive oil and a startling hint of bergamot. To finish, he made pasta with anchovy and lemon, topping it with breadcrumbs and some of the artichokes. This was my favourite dish, maybe because I knew straight away it was a dish I would take home and make again and again. It is todays recipe.
The idea is simple: you infuse olive oil with anchovies, onion, garlic and strips of lemon zest over a low flame. While the oil rests, you prepare toasted breadcrumbs, a quintessential Sicilian finish that gives substance and contrast. Once you have pulled out the onion, garlic and lemon zest, you toss the oil with pasta and lemon juice. The vigorous toss is important as this is when the oil, lemon juice and starch from the pasta emulsify into a gentle sauce that coats the pasta. Finish each serving with breadcrumbs.
The flavours are insistent and rich: the deep flavour of anchovy with a hint of onion and garlic; the sweet acidity of lemon, which seems at its most inherently alive when used for spring cooking, sharpening flavours like a heavy pencil outline. Depending on how much pasta you boil, this could be an Italian style primo (first course), or main course, with vegetables served after. I hope after the first two paragraphs, you want ice-cream or granita for dessert, or breakfast or both.
Pasta with anchovy, lemon and breadcrumbs
A small onion
A small garlic clove
1 large lemon
8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for toasting the breadcrumbs
50g anchovy fillets
400500g pasta (penne, mezze maniche, linguine, spaghetti)
1 Peel the onion and garlic, then cut the onion into eighths, and the garlic clove in half. Use a peeler to take off two strips of lemon. Put the olive oil, anchovies, onion, garlic and lemon in a frying pan and warm over a very low flame until the anchovies have disintegrated into the oil. Take off the heat and leave to sit.
2 Prepare the breadcrumbs by frying them gently, over a low-medium flame in a little olive oil, with a pinch of salt, until they are just starting to turn golden keep an eye on them then pull them from the heat.
3 Bring a pan of water to the boil, add salt, then the pasta and cook until al dente. Meanwhile, use a slotted spoon to lift the onion, garlic and lemon from the oil.
4 In the last minute of pasta cooking time, gently warm the oil and anchovies. Once the pasta is ready, drain it, then mix with the oil, either in the frying pan, or if you have used a small pan, a bowl. Add the juice of half a lemon and toss vigorously to emulsify the oil and lemon juice into a cream. Divide between plates, and top each serving with crumbs and a little grated lemon if you like.
- Rachel Roddy is an award-winning food writer based in Rome and the author of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome (Saltyard) @racheleats